By comparing the new Russian naval and military doctrine with U.S. military strategy, it’s possible to see that Russia is actually planning a strategy that avoids the risk of military conflict with the West.

The amendments to the Russian military doctrine adopted in December 2014 did not make the document more aggressive. Photo: RIA Novosti

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In late July the Kremlin amended the Russian naval doctrine. The news was reported by some media outlets as Moscow’s latest step in developing a strategy to counter NATO and the West. However, although the document reflects current geopolitical realities, it can hardly be said that the Russian naval and military doctrine represents a plan for military-backed expansion.

Moreover, a careful comparison of these documents with the U.S. national security strategy reveals that Russian intentions are limited to planning the development of the country’s armed forces, as well as its military and civilian fleet, at the same time as assessing the current threats.

Furthermore, it is rather superficial to directly link the modification of Russia’s doctrines – such as amendments made to the military doctrine in December 2014 - with the aggravation of Russia-NATO relations. How has the Kremlin’s position altered as a result, and how do Moscow’s approaches to security differ from Washington’s?

Does Russia's updated military strategy threaten the U.S.?

It should be noted that in 2001, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a seemingly stable U.S.-led world system took shape. Naturally it contained a few rogue countries, namely Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and regional leaders, such as China, India and (with some allowances) Russia and Brazil.

The events of the first decade of the 21st century exposed the fragility of this system. These days it is very difficult to talk about the territorial integrity of civil war-torn Libya and Afghanistan, while Iraq and Syria have seen the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which NATO has not yet come to grips with.

Lastly, the Ukrainian events of 2014 caused a rapid cooling of relations between Russia and NATO, whereupon Moscow turned from being a strategic partner of the North-Atlantic alliance into an opponent. Moreover, Washington soon began to perceive Russia as a primary threat.

So it was that in July of this year U.S. Army General Mark Milley, in his report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, placed Russia at the top of the list of potential enemies, stating that it was the only country with the nuclear capability to destroy the United States. This view is shared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman, General Joe Dunford, also considers Russia as threat number one.

Such statements on the possibility of Moscow unleashing a pointless and suicidal nuclear war are quite strange. After all, Russia’s military doctrine, approved in 2010 and closely linked to the naval doctrine, is quite peaceful in content and has always been considered defensive.

And although it was focused on NATO’s expansion and the attempts to “endow the force potential of NATO with global functions,” with the exception of international terrorism, there was no mention in the document of Russia’s likely foes. What’s more, attention was paid to cooperation with NATO in peacekeeping missions, and it was noted that the Russian military policy “is aimed at the prevention of an arms race, and the deterrence and avoidance of military conflicts.”

The document’s approval provoked a public discussion of Article 22, which seemingly allows for the preventative use of nuclear weapons. Yet many experts critical of “Moscow’s overly aggressive policy” passed over the clause providing for their use only “in case of aggression against Russia involving the use of conventional weapons that pose a threat to the very existence of the state.”

The amendments to the Russian military doctrine adopted in December 2014 did not make the document more aggressive. They merely registered the current geopolitical processes, noting the rising use of information technologies in the military-political sphere and the growing threat of international terrorism. Moreover, it was supplemented with a thesis on regime change, namely the forceful replacement of legitimate authority as a distinct threat in countries neighboring Russia.

The doctrine prescribes mechanisms for deploying troops, and outlines the prospects for developing armed forces, but makes no mention of any country as hostile and includes ample articles on the need for peaceful resolution of conflicts through the mechanisms of international diplomacy.

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In both versions of the Russian naval doctrine (the first dates back to 2001), only one section is devoted to purely military aspects. The document examines such areas as the development of maritime transport and marine science, the renovation of infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route, and the development of mineral resources on the Russian continental shelf.

The amendments to the naval doctrine are more copious than those made to its military cousin, primarily since the past 14 years have seen many changes: NATO expansion, chaos in the Middle East, and increased interest in Arctic resources and the Northern Sea Route. Indeed, the revised document mentions the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, and reflects the changes in the balance of power in the Black Sea and Russia’s greater capacity to control its waters.

The doctrine pays great attention to the Arctic, the proposed division of which into economic zones among the circumpolar powers provoked a lot of top-level talks well before the events in Ukraine. Besides the military sphere, the Arctic Ocean is Russia’s only unrestricted outlet to the Atlantic, in which regard the talking points are offshore development and the upgrading of infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route.

In these aspects the naval doctrine is closely related to another document, which too could shortly be amended in light of the current geopolitical events: the Development Strategy of the Arctic Zone of Russia, approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2013.

A serious consequence of Western sanctions on Russia is the suspension of joint projects between Russian oil and gas majors and foreign investors on the Arctic shelf. Furthermore, the ban on the transfer of technologies has made it harder to attract foreign companies to take part in offshore hydrocarbon development projects. This is forcing Moscow to alter its plans in the Arctic, and to develop own technologies for the independent production of resources in the circumpolar region.

The above facts indicate that the Russian military and naval doctrines are targeted at solving problems facing the country today. In principle the documents point neither to aggressive intentions on the part of Moscow or a bid by the Kremlin to intervene in the politics of third countries.

How the U.S. military approaches differ from the Russian ones

In contrast to the Russian doctrines, the U.S. national security strategy is in many respects more global, and represents not only a plan of action, but also a political declaration. The long introduction highlights the achievements of the current U.S. administration in the pursuit of peace, and fingers potential threats, including climate change and major energy market disruptions.

Moreover, an entire paragraph is devoted to the leading role of the United States in world politics and the infeasibility of solving global issues without its participation. Russia is mentioned in the context of the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, and is effectively described as an aggressor. The White House strategy speaks of the need to diversify gas supplies to Europe to avoid dependence on Moscow. The document also pays special attention to Russian propaganda with a view to countering it with the “unvarnished truth.”

Although Russia is given quite a few column inches of text, it is hard to say that Washington sees Moscow as its main opponent. Rather, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama highlights the basic triangular contradiction involving Crimea, Donbas and energy dependence.

It is clear from the strategy that Obama, on the home stretch in his second term as president, wants to convince the American public that his administration has achieved its objectives in the field of security.

As for specific mechanisms to address emerging threats, the Obama-approved document is quite hazy. It is highly likely that the next U.S. administration, which will take office after the presidential elections of 2016, will make significant adjustments to the strategy.

However, it can be assumed that the criticism toward Russia in relation to Ukraine and Crimea, and the growing role of Russia in world politics, will continue. The next U.S. president will clearly be forced to react to Russia’s stronger positions in the Arctic, too. Sadly, the U.S. national security strategy cannot be considered as merely a political declaration, since it will guide the actions of military personnel and politicians alike, some of whom, as mentioned above, see Russia as their most likely opponent.

The question as to whether the new U.S. administration will prioritize another arms race remains open. Meanwhile, Russia’s approach to drawing up its military and naval doctrines, focused as they are on domestic problems and devoid of anti-Western rhetoric, is a sign to the White House that Russia is unwilling to exacerbate the confrontation with the United States and the European Union, yet ready to defend its interests.